Volunteer overseas development workers: the hero's adventure and personal transformation

Sheena Hudson (Department of Public Health, Wellington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Otago University, Wellington South, New Zealand)
Kerr Inkson (School of Business, Otago University, Dunedin, New Zealand)

Career Development International

ISSN: 1362-0436

Publication date: 1 June 2006



The purpose of this paper is to provide new information about overseas volunteer development workers undertaking projects in underdeveloped countries, specifically, their backgrounds, personalities, values and previous experience, motivations, experiences, learning and “transformation” gained, and possible impact on further career; the degree of fit of experiences to the archetypal “hero's adventure”.


The paper presents a longitudinal study of a cohort of 48 New Zealand volunteers starting work on NZ aid organisation Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) assignments in 2001. This included structured interviews and administration of the NEO‐ PR personality inventory and the Schein Career orientation Inventory pre‐departure and on return and an e‐mail survey halfway through the assignment. Data analysis was largely qualitative using NVivo software.


Volunteers had high levels of openness and agreeableness, and career anchors of dedication to a cause and pure challenge. The majority of volunteers fitted the main characteristics of the “hero's adventure” model, duplicating results for business expatriates by Osland and academic expatriates by Richardson. Key features were motivations of adventure and altruism, descriptions of trials and tribulations during the project, feelings of success, new skill and personal transformations in identity and values.

Research limitations/implications

This is a mainly qualitative study of small sample from specific national location. Longer‐term follow‐up needed.

Practical implications

The paper provides valuable information for potential volunteers, for aid organisations selecting and supporting them and potential employers of volunteers.


Volunteer development work is increasingly common, is undertaken by thousands in third‐world countries, and is a potentially life‐changing experience, but research on it is very limited. This is the first in‐depth study, where findings paint a vivid picture of its nature and effects on the individual.



Hudson, S. and Inkson, K. (2006), "Volunteer overseas development workers: the hero's adventure and personal transformation", Career Development International, Vol. 11 No. 4, pp. 304-320. https://doi.org/10.1108/13620430610672522

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Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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